The Invention of Capitalism Issue (Weekly Links)


Page as Whip It’s whippet.

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week.

Whip It. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The scarcity of Roller Derby movies (does anybody even remember Raquel Welch in “Kansas City Bomber”?) is addressed by the ever-vigilant Drew Barrymore in her new film, “Whip It,” a hip-checking, knee-bruising comedy. Barrymore directs the film and plays a supporting role; the lead is taken by Ellen Page, the tiny “Juno” star. At first glance, Page looks as though she’d be squashed by the prototypical Derby Amazons, but speed and pluck allow her to survive.

Despite the novel backdrop, “Whip It” is a comfortably familiar tale. Page plays Bliss Cavendar, a high-school senior in sleepy Bodeen, Texas. Just down the road in Austin, the Roller Derby gals are holding tryouts for the new season—and Bliss is bored enough with her life to take a chance. The movie chronicles the sudden shift in Bliss’s life, from reluctant beauty-queen contestant to roller-skating brawler. The beauty-queen stuff comes from her mother (Marica Gay Harden, in pro form), who just wants her daughter to be a demure debutante. The script is by a former Roller Derby athlete, Shauna Cross, whose RD name was Maggie Mayhem. Bliss, for her part, takes Babe Ruthless as her nom de skate.

The backstage stuff feels authentic enough. Everything else is formula, from Bliss’s supportive, passive dad (Daniel Stern) to her puzzled best friend (Alia Shawkat). There’s a sympathetic teammate on the Hurl Scouts (Kristen Wiig, from “Saturday Night Live”), and a mystifyingly competitive rival named Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis). Drew Barrymore relegates herself to slapstick duty, while her “Fever Pitch” co-star Jimmy Fallon does an extended cameo as the track announcer. Many scenes are stolen by Andrew Wilson, the lesser-known brother of Owen and Luke (who achieved a minor level of immortality as “Futureman” in “Bottle Rocket”). He plays the bearded coach of the Hurl Scouts, a slightly fried hippie with a serious approach to the sport.

This is Barrymore’s first film as a director, and it’s consistent with the films she’s produced: hang-loose vibe, girl-power message, and a reminder that romance (even with a, like, totally cute dude in a band) is not necessarily the goal of a young woman’s life.

It’s all very cheerful and not really much of a movie. “Whip It” does serve as a vehicle for Ellen Page, a gifted actress who radiates intelligence, if not a great deal of warmth. (As opposed to Barrymore, who conveys warmth in abundance.) Page makes you believe she could survive a few spins around the Roller Derby track; given her size, that’s an acting feat in itself.

The Invention of Lying. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Although Ricky Gervais has appeared in films before, including last year’s underseen sleeper “Ghost Town,” the creator-star of “The Office” and “Extras” hasn’t been in a movie he wrote himself. Until now: “The Invention of Lying” is co-written and co-directed by Gervais (in tandem with Matthew Robinson), and he takes the lead role. It’s built on a swallow-it-whole premise: the world as we know it exists without any lying. No one has ever dissembled, fibbed, or told a fictional story. The world is incredibly bland.

Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a screenwriter for a movie company that makes films about historical events. He’s on the verge of getting fired, and his first date with dream girl Anna (beaming Jennifer Garner, just right) has gone badly—although in a world where people say exactly what they think, he’s probably accustomed to being told he’s a pudgy loser.

The film’s gimmick is that Mark is the first human being to conceive of telling a lie, which means he can easily convince anybody of anything. And get whatever he wants. This goes to its logical conclusion: with his mother (Fionnula Flanagan) on her deathbed, Mark invents the idea that there is an afterlife in which you live forever and reunite with everyone you’ve ever loved. Plus you get a mansion.

Word of this gets out and Mark becomes the world’s first religious figure, a twist that finds its hilarious peak in his Moses-like delivery of dogma that he’s pasted onto two pizza boxes.

Thus “The Invention of Lying” morphs from an amusing sitcom to a sneaky satire (part early Woody Allen, part Monty Python) of the reasons people need to believe in fictions.

Some able comedy hands are around to help along this premise, including Tina Fey, Louis C.K., Rob Lowe, and Jason Bateman. Gervais shows off less of the improvisatory genius that has made his name and more of a straight acting side. This produces fewer manic highs than, say, an average episode of the British “Office.” And the film has no visual sense at all, even if you acknowledge that some of its blah look is intentionally conveying a colorless society.

But the laughs combined with a bittersweet tone makes for something original, and the movie’s not at all a safe bet. Can’t wait to see what Gervais comes up with next.

Capitalism: A Love Story. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The title suggests the size and the attitude of Michael Moore’s new opus. “Capitalism: A Love Story” casts the widest net yet of Moore’s documentary projects. The economic meltdown of 2008 would seem to have prepared the way for a treatise on the subject of capitalism, and (say what you will about him) Moore always has a nose for the big story of the moment.

But although “Capitalism” includes the elites who made off with billions while wrecking the economy, Moore has even bigger fish to deep-fry. He wants to question the idea of capitalism itself. And then get rid of it.

The format is the usual Moore smorgasbord. Cheeky jokes, manipulative music, wacky vintage social-issue movies, some tear-jerking tales about real people getting screwed over by the system. And of course Michael Moore’s signature shtick of trying to get into buildings he’s not welcome in. The latter routine is getting far too old to continue. Some of the other stuff still works, if only because Moore sometimes steps out of the spotlight and allows stories of real injustice and outrage to come forward.

These include a vignette about a widow shocked to learn that her husband’s corporate employer had taken out a life insurance policy on him (without their knowledge), thus collecting millions. It’s a standard practice known as the “Dead Peasants” clause, although not a lot of people know about it. Seeing its effects is a strong comment on the procedure.

Moore has a bigger narrative, along with the anecdotes. He illustrates it with his own story: how he was a kid in Michigan in the 1950s, the son of a hard-working and respectably-paid General Motors employee. That comfortable life is contrasted with the wasteland Moore finds in today’s Flint and Detroit. His archvillain in this devolution storyline is Ronald Reagan, who envisioned a shining city on a hill through deregulation, weaker unions, and lower taxes for the wealthy. Moore’s brush paints a skeptical picture of the current administration as well, as he numbers off the many financial insiders (some of whom were at the helm during the deregulated free-for-all that preceded the collapse) who now have jobs in the Obama government.

The result—does this qualify as a spoiler?—is that Moore rejects capitalism entirely. His church choir for this is almost literally that: a group of Catholic priests from Michigan who assert that capitalism is morally wrong. Moore will probably be called a socialist, and quite possibly (given the current fad for mixing completely contradictory ideologies willy-nilly) a fascist, and maybe an antidisestablishmentarian. “Capitalism” will stir up the usual outrage, and play well to his fans, but its overall shapelessness and reliance on old tricks suggests that he’s in a better groove when his sites are set on a single, limited target.

The Boys are Back. “If only the movie had the care and discretion of Owen’s performance.”

The September Issue. “The decisiveness and drive of Gen. Patton.”

Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. “A rewarding acquaintance.”

Zombieland. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

“Zombieland” isn’t too concerned with how its particular zombie outbreak happened. Oh sure, there’s a passing reference to somebody eating some tainted meat somewhere, and kicking off an apocalypse. But basically, most of humanity has already been killed off by the time this new horror-comedy opens. The undead roam the streets, and a small band of survivors is road-tripping across the country is search of safe haven.

The first few minutes of “Zombieland” are full of glib voiceover and wink-wink zombie jokes. I was braced for the worst—after all, “Shaun of the Dead” has set a high bar for this kind of zombie slapstick. Luckily, “Zombieland” stops hugging itself, mostly, and settles into a reasonably enjoyable, if blood-spattered, groove. Jesse Eisenberg, recently of “Adventureland,” plays the fearful young narrator, a phobic sort who has survived the zombie plague by sticking to his list of numbered rules.

He teams up with gun-totin’ good ol’ boy Woody Harrelson, and they encounter the unpredictable Emma Stone (“Superbad”), traveling with her kid sister, “Little Miss Sunshine” gal Abigail Breslin.

The road-trip stuff is not bad, and the movie almost forgets about the zombie threat for a while. (I’m not sure that’s a good thing.) Soon enough, there will be blood—and entrails, and brains. The comic high point of “Zombieland” is unquestionably the quartet’s encounter with a famous movie star in his lavish mansion. I guess this is supposed to be a surprise cameo, so we won’t just blurt it out here. But jeez, what a score for the movie.

The survivors have heard rumors that an L.A. amusement park, a much chintzier version of “Disneyland,” is a zombie-free zone. That sounds doubtful, so you know there’s going to be a gory battle royale at the end—one which grows tedious, despite director Ruben Fleischer’s efforts to invent new ways of dispatching the undead.

Fleischer definitely has a comic touch, and a group of actors capable of delivering muttered asides, which are funnier than the film’s official jokes. Give credit for that, even if “Zombieland” never quite puts enough at stake—or explain the immortal dilemma in z-lore: can zombies run, or merely stagger?

This Sunday, come by the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, 2 p.m., as I give a free lecture on the revisionist Westerns of the late 60s-early 70s. More info here.

And Rotten #4 hits comic book stores this week. Visit your retailer, and the Rotten website.